By Jeff Leitner, Guest Columnist

Q: I run a small business and am committed to refocusing some of our 2010 efforts on growth. In particular I would like to improve our brand awareness and I’d like to do this in a way that is aligned with our corporate values. I’ve heard a lot about corporate outreach and am considering such an approach. What do I need to know?

A: There is a whole lot written – probably too much – about why and how to incorporate corporate outreach or community giving into your business: to appeal to young hires, to appeal to socially-conscious buyers, to do your civic duty. All of these things are true and they miss the point. The highest value of corporate outreach is to change the fundamental relationship between businesses and consumers, between companies and their customers.

The most successful companies are communities. Here’s what I mean: the most successful companies are at the heart of passionate, engaged groups of people giving, people receiving, people speaking out, people listening and people hanging around on the periphery trying to sort out what all the fuss is about.

Yes, you can spark a community without corporate outreach. Nike did it. Barnes and Noble did it. Wal-Mart did it. But you’re not Nike, Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart. You don’t have the marketing budget, the real estate budget or the distribution network to work people up about running shoes, overstuffed chairs or low, low prices. You have to find another way to get consumers hot and bothered about what you’re doing.

But, you say, I produce a novel product, sell an interesting service or have a clever tag line. Surely, people will get hot and bothered about that. No, sorry. We’re sure your product is novel, your service is interesting and your tag line is clever. But we – the millions of potential community members who are busy working, spending too little time with our families and trying unsuccessfully to carve out time for ourselves – don’t care. It’s not that we don’t care about you specifically; it’s that we don’t have the time, energy or bandwidth to care about much of anything.

But, you say, I care deeply about my customers and I’ll create a community around them. You could try. But most of the time, it feels painfully insincere. C’mon – politicians don’t really run for national office because they care about our interests and mattress stores don’t really move inventory so we get better sleep.

To recap, you can’t make it all about you because we don’t care and you can’t make it all about us because we won’t believe you. Herein lies the value of corporate outreach. Corporate outreach – done right – is the rallying cry, the spark at the center of communities. Your customers and your prospective customers care about lots of things, even if we don’t have the time, energy or bandwidth to do much about them. And presumably, you care about thing. Corporate outreach is at that intersection – between what your customers care about and what you care about.

It’s not about you; it’s not about me – it’s about us.

“Us” is a fundamentally different relationship than business and consumer, than company and customer. Let “us” solve a problem together. Let “us” get homeless kids off the street. Let “us” find a cure for cancer. Engage your customers in something they care about and they’ll be a lot more open to things they don’t care about – like your product, service or tag line. This isn’t Nike, Barnes & Noble or Wal-Mart. But it is Ben & Jerry’s, Dove and Tom’s Shoes.

Corporate outreach is a tool for building a community. And building a community – engaging folks to give, receive, talk, listen and stand around watching – is the best way to build a business.

Now you can go read the thousands of articles on how to do corporate outreach. Now you can read about how to “be sincere,” “be local” and “be transparent.” But, of course, if you’re recruiting your customers to tackle a social problem, you already know how to be sincere, be local and be transparent. Because you’re one of us.

Jeff Leitner is managing partner of Cause Strategy, one of the somewhat dangerous, crazy ambitious Manifest companies. He and his team have worked with major brands, national non-profits, governments and foolhardy start-ups to change markets and make the world a better place. For reading suggestions, contact Jeff at [email protected].